New US Ambassador Scott Brown has arrived in Wellington, urging Kiwis to give President Donald Trump a fair go. Brown says Trump’s America First policy does not mean isolationism and has hinted at a greater role for the US in the Pacific so China “knows we’re there”, as Sam Sachdeva writes.
Washington’s new man in Wellington is clearly keen to make a good first impression.
Sporting a New England Patriots tie, new US Ambassador Scott Brown embarked on what an NFL fan might call a full-blown charm blitz in his first media interview since his arrival.
A tray laden with doughnuts was on offer for journalists, while the requisite offerings were made to satiate New Zealand’s national psyche.
It was “an honour” to be here, his number one choice: after all, he’d heard we were the most beautiful country in the world, with the friendliest people.
He enjoyed watching the Hurricanes-Lions rugby match - “I mean, what a battle” - while also congratulating Team NZ for its victory in the America’s Cup, “now New Zealand’s cup”.
“If I had known they had bike riders in boats now, I probably would have volunteered,” the avid cyclist says.
While Brown’s warmth and enthusiasm feels genuine, it is perhaps also a sign of the mountain he knows he must climb to overturn scepticism in New Zealand about Donald Trump’s fledging presidency.
Urging Kiwis to give Trump “a fair go”, he describes him as a “very direct” man who was nonetheless prepared to listen to those around him.
“He’s one of the first elected officials that has actually fulfilled those promises - whether you like him or not, he’s a man of his word, and that’s one thing I've always respected about him.”
As for the frequent stream of tweets flying out of the Oval Office, Brown argues that is no different to other presidents’ attempts to connect with voters.
“You had obviously the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a way to reach the people, you had a president travelling by train throughout the country, you had a president who actually got on the radio to circumvent the controlling media at that time, and now you have this president who's actually using a new form of social media that’s unheard of, that can actually go directly to the people.
“In average America, people are listening.”
'More resilient than most'
Brown comes from a unique background.
He lived in 17 houses by the time he was 17, abused physically by his stepfathers and sexually by a camp counsellor, and says his difficult upbringing made him “a little more resilient than most”.
“With my parents being married and divorced so many times, the fact there was a fair amount of violence in my family, I think it made me who I am today.”
He hopes to spend time in New Zealand dealing with children and families in similar situations, helping them to turn their lives around.
“It’s something I can relate to, I understand. I’d like to play a role in sharing my story so people can maybe say, ‘Gosh, he’s an ambassador - we can actually get out of this kind of cycle we’re in’.”
When Brown was first announced as Trump’s nominee, many New Zealand media focussed on his modelling career as a university student, including a triumph as “America's Sexiest Man” - and accompanying nude photo spread - in a Cosmopolitan magazine competition.
“I wish I still looked like that,” he quips now, before offering a compelling reason for the decision.
“I had no money, no job, no ability to pay for law school, and I absolutely don’t regret any of that, because had I not done any of that I never would have met that lovely woman back there and had some great lovely kids and had the ability to basically pay for school and parlay that into a future for my family.”
America First 'not isolationism'
Brown’s main focus in New Zealand will be on maintaining and strengthening ties with the United States.
He is quick to talk up his own swift installation in the post, as well as recent visits by US officials, as a sign of the esteem New Zealand is held in.
“The fact that you had a Five Eyes meeting here, then you had Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson come, then you had me as the second ambassador out the door speaks volumes about the relationship that we have with your country.”
Brown, who spent 35 years in the Army National Guard, says his military background and the current state of instability in the Asia-Pacific was one factor in Trump’s decision to send him to Wellington so quickly.
“As you know, what’s happening with China and their basically taking rocks and turning them into islands and potentially militarising them...North Korea and what’s happening up there - this is a very, very important part of the world.”
Trump’s “America First” policy, Brown says, is not about withdrawing from the world but ensuring there is a “fair and open and balanced approach” in areas like trade.
“A strong America is good not only for New Zealand, it’s good for the entire world, as a strong New Zealand is good for the entire world.”
He says that rationale is in part why Trump withdrew from the TPP free trade deal in favour of pursuing bilateral agreements “where you can get a better bang for your dollar”.
He is keen to talk to the Trump administration at some point “to explore any and all opportunities with the businesses and leadership in New Zealand to try to come up with some sort of agreement that really benefits us in, quite frankly, a different way”.
South China Sea
During his confirmation hearings, Brown praised New Zealand for standing up to China over its military installations in the South China Sea, and he is quick to reiterate his support.
“You can’t tell New Zealanders what to do, they’re fiercely independent and they know right from wrong and they also know the law...
“The fact that your government has spoken up, notwithstanding the positive trade relationship they have with China, I think speaks volumes.”
While some have raised concerns about China’s chequebook diplomacy in the Pacific, Brown appears unworried about the country’s attempts to win more influence.
“I don’t think China’s involvement is necessarily a bad thing, they’re doing what they need to do - they’re trying to trade and grow and expand and take care of their people, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
However, he is keen for the United States to be more active in the Pacific, in part to balance China’s increased profile.
“To have stepped back like we have in the past I don’t think is appropriate, and I’m hopeful through my efforts and putting the other ambassadors in place and also the military exercises, the business opportunities we have throughout the region, basically we’ll let them know that we’re here - not necessarily that we’re pushing them back but that we can co-exist.”
He says he will encourage Trump to make a visit to New Zealand once he has time, “hopefully before the end of his eight-year term”.
“Did you catch that?”, he adds.
The event is capped with an impromptu performance on the guitar from the rabid Cheap Trick fan, before an appeal to ensure no doughnuts are left behind on the way out the door.
There is a long way to go before Kiwis can be convinced about Trump, but Brown himself will be far easier to warm to.